What Kinds of Things Count as Philosophy?


Academic philosophers in Anglophone Ph.D.-granting departments tend to have a narrow conception of what counts as valuable philosophical work. Hiring, tenure, promotion, and prestige turn mainly on one’s ability to write an essay in a particular theoretical, abstract style, normally in reaction to the work of a small group of canonical historical and 20th century figures, on a fairly constrained range of topics, published in a limited range of journals and presses. This is too narrow a view.

So says Eric Schwitzgebel (UC Riverside) in a post at The Splintered Mind. He notes the “recency and historical contingency” of today’s favored philosophical medium, the journal article, as well as the form and presumed audience of philosophical work. He writes:

Nor need we think that philosophical work must consist of expository argumentation targeted toward disciplinary experts and students in the classroom. This, too, is a narrow and historically recent conception of philosophical work. Popular essays, fictions, aphorisms, dialogues, autobiographical reflections, and personal letters have historically played a central role in philosophy. We could potentially add, too, public performances, movies, video games, political activism, and interactions with the judicial system and governmental agencies…

I urge our discipline to conceptualize philosophical work more broadly than we typically do.

Read the whole thing here.

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Lowly Undergrad
Lowly Undergrad
5 years ago

While I am sympathetic to calls like this to re-conceptualize philosophical inquiry in a more pluralistic manner, there seems a lack of *material* suggestions. What can be done to (or outside of) the University system to encourage this? Changes to what counts as research (with regards to hiring and tenure granting processes) in philosophy departments? Re-evaluation of unorthodox philosophies? More experimental journal article/blog entry formats? How can we bring these changes about?Report

Richard Yetter Chappell
5 years ago

I absolutely agree, and have previously argued that blogging (in particular) is under-appreciated as a medium for doing philosophy:
http://www.philosophyetc.net/2009/03/medium-of-philosophy.htmlReport

anon'
anon'
5 years ago

Why not recognize that Anglophone philosophy’s “narrow conception of what counts as valuable philosophical work” basically reflects the philosophical interests, cultural sensibilities, and professional priorities of an enduring critical mass of Anglophone philosophers?

The choice to construe as they do what counts as valuable philosophy is not mostly a failure of imagination. Rather than claiming a neutral metaphilosophical stance, they could just admit that what they philosophically value, however narrow, is driven by considerations and impulses that suit them — and that they don’t particularly care about the interests and inclusion of outsiders who also identify as philosophers.Report

P.D.
5 years ago

Lots of classic philosophy articles make little or not mention of their inspirations and interlocutors. This means that citation isn’t a great measure of actual impact. In response to a recent discussion about citation practices in philosophy (somewhere online, but I can’t remember where) a number of philosophers argued that it would be better for philosophy articles to have citation practices more like those in the sciences.
I don’t want to endorse that or disagree with the original post, but I want to note a tension: Pressure to write with more citation and scholarly apparatus pulls away from making it accessible, and popular works (esp. works of literature) don’t draw connections in the same way.Report

Barry Lam
Barry Lam
5 years ago

This American Life and its spinoff show Serial are two of the most successful scripted and produced programs in audio history. They have audiences in the millions, and if you are fan, you’d recognize the talent and skill involved in producing them. Ira Glass, the host and editor, has been approached many times to write a book, but he conceives of the project as looney, since the total audience won’t be anywhere near that of the radio show and the time commitment is much longer. The journal article is as recent as Eric says, but the print-bias in scholarship is much older. Great talks, powerpoint slides and presentations, long form podcasts, oral debates and panels, interviews, documentaries, and fiction we all enjoy way more, learn more from, they have much larger audiences, but we still consider the printed book or article as the end product, the thing to archive, the thing to cite, the thing to respond to, and the thing we use to evaluate the quality of the philosopher. I think we can bring about changes by allowing other mediums of expression, explanation, and communication of arguments and ideas into philosophy classrooms and for tenure files. We can learn to evaluate them on their own terms, whether peer-reviewed or mass-reviewed, and we can give them the same degree of importance as a journal article or book. Nigel Warburton is a great interviewer and communicator of ideas, but what he has produced isn’t tenurable, even if the audience is massively larger than the best article in Phil Review last year, and the impact much larger. x-posted at Splintered Mind.Report

Anon
Anon
5 years ago

I agree with the spirit of the post. I’d love to see more variation and experimentation in philosophical media and style.

However, I’m not convinced by the historical argument that the philosophical essay is a recent invention. Most of the counterexamples he gives are from a very narrow circle and period of existentialists (Sartre, Camus, and Unamuno). And Russell, Dewey, and Wittgenstein are pretty exceptional cases, hardly indicating that philosophical essay-style was anything but the norm.

I’d add that one reason a less inventive and open approach to philosophical writing is the norm is because innovation is difficult. And specifically, artistically difficult. And there’s no reason to think that philosophers are particularly well suited to artistic accomplishments–and not a little reason to think they are, on balance, particularly unsuited to artistic accomplishment.

So, while I’d be happy to see us all taking more risks to try new ways of making philosophy, I’d also add some realistic expectations: much of it will be awful. Most of us are not, and could never be, a Sartre or Wittgenstein.

(Indeed, isn’t this part of the lesson of late 20th century continental philosophy? When everyone in a field tries to be an artist-philosopher creative genius, for every Foucault or Deleuze there will be a thousand absolutely unbearable pretentious bores. But that’s a risk I’d still love analytic philosophy to take!)Report

p
p
5 years ago

I think the historical claim is completely misguided. As noted above, it is pointing to exceptions rather than rules. In Ancient times, the main medium (besides oral transmission) were written treatises, whether contemporary journal length or book length and letters (but these often had the forms of a treatise). Philosophers, then, just like now, too inspiration in a lot of different things (from Homer and Hesiod, through theatre and music to Bible), but that did not make those sources into philosophy. The same for medieval and modern times all the way up to Romanticism. Journal article we know it today came really into being I think in around 17th century (Leibniz liked it). It is, actually, the kind of drive to include everybody’s random preferences that E.S. displays that is new. Philosophy has been traditionally exclusionary and esoteric – practiced in select circles – whether it’s Academy, Epicurean Garden, medieval monastery, or university by those who had the luxury or good luck to do so. That does not exclude it being of interest to other people or its being relevant or having the capacity to influence the world in significant or even decisive ways. But that is not achieved by doing philosophy through World of Warcraft. That just makes it ridiculous in the eyes of public.Report

Jasper Heaton
Jasper Heaton
5 years ago

Anon 3 asked: “Why not recognize that Anglophone philosophy’s “narrow conception of what counts as valuable philosophical work” basically reflects the philosophical interests, cultural sensibilities, and professional priorities of an enduring critical mass of Anglophone philosophers?”

Because it is far from obvious that this is true. That anglophone philosophy is (typically) conducted in this very narrow way doesn’t imply that this is the way anglophone philosophers want to conduct their work. In fact, I’m not sure whose interests I think this narrow conception of philosophy reflects. (I’m not even convinced it reflects the interests of those damn bureaucrats, amirite?)

The contemporary style of the philosophical article is a convention that, for a whole bunch of reasons, the majority of us have taken up. Speaking for myself (though my suspicion is these will be many peoples’ reasons), I moulded my writing style to fit with the current ‘narrow conception’ because a) I wanted good grades/accreditation/to play the academic game, and b) I wanted to communicate with my colleagues, and this is the language they speak.

A further thought, though, is that we *are* seeing a reconceptualization of philosophy (or at least, it seems to me we are). I’m thinking of work in feminist philosophy, social ontology and epistemology, and recent work on love and on tenderness. Among my colleagues, I’m seeing a greater focus on collaborative work. And I see an increasing number of webcomics that poke at and play with philosophical concepts; I see philosophical ideas explored in music; I see philosophers themselves taking an increased interest in what we can learn (and mine) from fiction; I see papers like ‘Possible Girls’ published in mainstream journals. Of course all this may not be new; but I’m still new in town, and it looks like there’s a case for optimism to me.Report

Greg Littmann
Greg Littmann
5 years ago

Professional philosophers should keep in mind that their professional end is to benefit people outside professional philosophy, rather than to benefit other professional philosophers. Normally, philosophical ideas can only benefit people if they understand them. The system as it stands is great at generating interesting ideas, but terrible at delivering them to the end-user–that is, to non-professionals. This is perhaps understandable given that the profession values the generation of new ideas for the use of professional specialists, but fails to see much value in writing directly for the public we theoretically serve. This attitude seems to stem from the uncritical adoption of standards used in other disciplines which produce work that non-professionals can more easily benefit from without understanding (a medicine will work as well on someone who doesn’t understand it as on someone who does, for example). Philosophers need to ask themselves what benefit their work provides for humanity that justifies the money they get for producing it.Report

Captain Sensible
Captain Sensible
5 years ago

Not bloggingReport

Tom Hurka
Tom Hurka
5 years ago

How much influence, and how much value, would A Theory of Justice or Reasons and Persons or David Lewis’s various articles have had if they’d been a video game, blog post, or set of autobiographical reflections? A book or article can do things these other media can’t, i.e. develop an argument or idea in depth and with the precision needed to make a lasting contribution.

It seems to be becoming fashionable to think our current standard practices are all accidental, reflecting just the arbitrary predilections or interests of some once-dominant group. But, as several other commenters have said, the practice of writing philosophical treatises goes back much further than Schwitzgebel says, and was adopted because it best fit the aims of past philosophers, which are also the aims of most philosophers today. Lord knows there can be boring philosophy articles and books, but a long thought-over and well-written philosophical text can do things none of the other proposed media can. It can do sustained, serious philosophy.Report

Matt McAdam
Matt McAdam
5 years ago

ES ends his post by making a plea about “our discipline” while the picture of philosophy as a “discipline” is essentially the target of his criticism. It strikes me that he’s saying (a) there isn’t room for Socrates in the modern research university, and (b) that’s a bad thing. I think I agree with (a), but it isn’t clear to me that (b) is true and the post doesn’t have an argument for it. This isn’t the same thing as saying that, for lack of a better term, Socratic philosophy isn’t valuable. It’s saying this practice may not be a good fit with the norms of the modern research university. I realize many will say “so much the worse for the modern research university,” but it isn’t clear to me why the aims and standards of Socratic philosophy and the discipline of academic philosophy housed in the reach university need be the same. One can be happy to let a thousand flowers bloom under the term “philosophy,” without thinking this implies a criticism of the norms and practices of the research based, knowledge-generating discipline of academic philosophy. The existence of this form of philosophy doesn’t preclude other ways of doing it, ones that would accommodate the types of diversity in media, etc. ES defends.Report

Aaron Garrett
Aaron Garrett
5 years ago

“Consider the recency and historical contingency of the philosophical journal article. It’s a late 19th century invention.” Just to add to the point that the journal article/treatise model is not as recent as suggested — Leibniz wrote a lot of journal articles and a few treatises. As did many others. If the claim is that “specific philosophical journals are a late 19th century invention” I don’t know whether this is true or not. It seems more likely that it has to do with the privileging of relatively brief set texts in the Anglo-American curriculum from the 18th century onward and a style of interrogating the texts that gave rise to the modern journal article.
I think much more important is opening up philosophy as a collaborative effort, whether in journal articles, on websites, or in books. The singular genius/individual career in need of promotion model/individual blogger model are all equally destructive of philosophy as a group enterprise. The sciences do a much better job than us on this front.Report

Avi Z.
Avi Z.
5 years ago

We should be inspired by the various genres in which philosophy has historically been done. The dialogue seems still relevant, especially as a writing exercise for undergraduates who might find excellent models of it in Plato, Berkeley, and Hume. The Cartesian-style “meditation”, which is a kind of intellectual exercise modeled on spiritual exercises could lend itself to contemporary philosophy’s penchant for thought experiments (I think Parfit’s “On What Matters” could be read as such a “meditation”). The epistolary genre of correspondence could be revived to great effect – who wouldn’t love to read thoughtful correspondence between important contemporary philosophers with opposing views on some problem? Or even an imagined correspondence? Media such as blogs, videos, etc., are valuable but informal, similar to live conversation. I don’t think they can replace formal works. We can ignore some genres, of course: Spinoza’s geometrical method and Aquinas’ disputational questions don’t seem very attractive.Report

p
p
5 years ago

It is very difficult to pull off a literary dialogue of the kind Plato did. Or a philosophical novel. The few who ventured did so with not very encouraging results. Frankly, I would not want to read a novel by 99.99 philosophers whose works I know (including myself), nor do I see what the point of it would be. And why is Spinoza’s or Aquinas’ model not the good one? Just because it is not flashy and media-friendly? It certainly seems to me that those two with their boring methods of exposition had way more impact than most…Report

Matt
5 years ago

“…who wouldn’t love to read thoughtful correspondence between important contemporary philosophers with opposing views on some problem?

As a matter of fact, some things like this have been published – actual correspondence between Sellars and Chisholm, and between Carnap and Quine, at least. (Probably others, but those are the examples I know from personal experience.) My thought was that reading the correspondence wasn’t really any more helpful than just reading the papers the people wrote, and often less helpful. There are books with “important” (arguably) contemporary philosophers presenting opposing views on some problem available now (various “for and against” or “point/counter-point” volumes in several different areas) and, in my experience, they are rather better than reading the correspondence of the authors just because the contributions are more “journal article” or book like.
(There are also books published with the correspondence of Russel, Wittgenstein, and probably others, too, but while they are sometimes of interest philosophically [as opposed to biographically] it takes a lot of work to dig out the philosophical nuggets, and don’t suggest that this is, itself, a great way to do philosophy if you can do it some other way. That people in the past didn’t have other ways open to them doesn’t make it a good way to do it now.)Report

BLS Nelson
5 years ago

This question has arisen a bunch of times in the last year (e.g., here at New APPS, here at The Rough Ground), and I find my reactions are generally on the conservative side. But I still live in the 21st century, and I love philosophy across all media, if done well. (I wrinkle my nose at The Matrix trilogy for having crappy plots, not for being philosophically out of touch.) That might seem like a conflict of sentiments, at least.

So here is a distinction that might be helpful: it seems to me that philosophy can be found anywhere, across any different number of media, but that anything with a decent shot at being useful philosophy is made through the crucible of argument understood as rational conversation. What tends to be useful about the book and essay format (and increasingly the blog format) is that they make it easy to see how philosophy is made in the manner we find it. This is usually obscured in other media and genres. So the project of figuring out the intellectual background of some piece of culture into a big fat hassle for the philosopher, which can be pretty unsatisfying. (On the plus side, it will make the work of art seem like a revelation to everyone else.)

That said, I think it’s well worth while to experiment with different modes of presentation. (So, for example, as a project in personal growth I’ve taken it upon myself to write and re-write a single argument in six different ways. So far I have it in “Tractarian”, polemical, and standard-fare-publication formats, and next I’d like to do a very small “Alan Moore” style graphic novel.) But I do not know how earnestly we should be looking for alternatives until we are clear about whether we’re trying to improve the profession’s ability to recognize philosophy or improve its ability to make good philosophy. (Or both. Or neither.)Report

Cathy Legg
Cathy Legg
5 years ago

I want to put in a plug for two of the great female philosophical minds of the C20th who proactively decided to genre-bust and write philosophy in the form of literature: Simone de Beauvoir and Iris Murdoch. It seems that the standard forms and norms of the discipline didn’t suit them so much.Report

Charles Pigden
Charles Pigden
5 years ago

I’m surprised that nobody has mentioned Imre Lakatos’s *Proofs and Refutations*, surely one of the most brilliant philosophical dialogues ever written (with a much larger cast of active participants than Plato is usually able to manage). David and Stephanie Lewis did a dialogue on holes (appropriately entitled ‘Holes’), Popper has a dialogue in Conjectures and Refutations, and some of Feyerabend’s later works are in dialogue form too. Another piece worth mentioning is ‘’J L. Arbor’s”reductio-cum-parody of the Routleys: ‘Animal chauvinism, plant regarding ethics and the torture of trees’, especially the typically Routleyan footnote: ‘see M. Machina, “Even Screwdrivers Have a ‘Right to Life’ ” (unpublished)’. But literary experimenters should be warned by my example. I’ve done a lot of this sort of thing and it hasn’t done me much good. I have

1) A shakespearean dialogue in blank verse featuring Coriolanus as my mouthpiece (‘Complots of Mischief’)
2) Two meditations in blank verse in part defending my conception of how to do the history of philosophy (see the introductions to Pigden ed. * Hume on Motivation and Virtue* and *Hume on Is and Ought*)
3) A pastiche of 18th Century prose (though rather more in the style of Gibbon rather than Hume since I find his voice easier to imitate) ‘A Letter From a Gentleman in Dunedin to a Lady in the Countryside’ in which I conduct an argument with the late Annette Baier. about how to read Hume on Is and Ought.
4) An elaborate literary joke as the beginning of ‘Coercive Theories of Meaning’ (which I wont’ explain for fear of spoiling it.)

I’ve even done a Thomistic disputatio, though not a piece intended for publication. But fun as this has been it hasn’t really helped much in getting across my ideas. So far as I can tell most readers are so overwhelmed by the style that they have been unable to grapple with the substance, the major exception being Steve Clarke who figures as a character in ‘Complots of Mischief’. He spoke his part like a good sport when we acted the dialogue is Sydney, and seemed to take Coriolanus’s criticisms seriously. But when ‘Complots’ was done into French as ‘Une Superstition Moderne’ they left out the shakespearean first half, confining themselves to the plodding prose of the second section. If rational persuasion is the object of the enterprise, my experience suggests that an exotic medium can obscure the message. There is a price to pay for literary pyrotechnics. Stylistic razzle dazzle seems to impede uptake.Report

Simon
Simon
5 years ago

I think that your claim that ‘the historical claim is completely misguided’ is itself completely misguided. Most of the Pre-socratics wrote philosophical poems, while Plato and Aristotle were most famous in antiquity for their dialogues (Aristotle’s ‘treatises’, remember, sat moldering in a cave for quite a while). Many other instances from antiquity do not have the form of the treatise: most of Seneca, much of Cicero (Tusculan Disputations, etc.), the unclassifiable and genre-jumping work of the Cynics, the ‘accessible’ and popularizing work of Plutarch, Dio Chrysostum, and Julian the Apostate, etc. While there are plenty of examples of systematic treatises in antiquity, they hardly constitute the ‘rule’ for philosophy. Indeed, the only period other than our own where they surely ‘do’ is the medieval era (Renaissance ‘treatises’ are often parodic – meant to mock and send up the tedious encumbrance of learning weighing down their medieval precendents) . Let’s not pose the false dilemma of systematic treatise or ‘philosophy for dummies’. There have long been creative and experimental ways of composing philosophy. Closed-off, disciplinary institutions have generally not been a good place for their flourishing.Report